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Education

A Graduation To Remember, After So Many Moments Were Canceled

Josiah Gooden, a graduating senior from McCluer North High School, attends a drive-in commencement Sunday, May 31, 2020.
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Josiah Gooden, a graduating senior from McCluer North High School, attends a drive-in commencement Sunday.

There was a visible addition to the commencement regalia and pomp for McCluer North High School class of 2020: face masks.

When the seniors paraded into a parking lot at the former St. Louis Mills Mall Sunday, they had face masks with their school’s logo and graduation year to match their caps and gowns. It was all part of an attempt to orchestrate a socially distanced graduation ceremony and give these teens a proper send-off after so much else in their senior year was missed.

When schools abruptly closed in March to stem the spread of the pandemic, more than in-person classes were canceled: Senior skip days, prom, spring sports were all waylaid. 

Jhalen Taylor, 18, tries to get his graduation cap to fit outside his mom's Florissant home May 31, 2020, before attending an outdoor graduation.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Jhalen Taylor, 18, tries to get his graduation cap to fit outside his mom's Florissant home before attending an outdoor graduation.

“The corona did get in the way of it, but we came out and today we’re graduating,” said Jhalen Taylor, an 18-year-old senior from Florissant.

Just at a time when teens usually earn more freedom and independence, seniors like Taylor have been stuck inside with their parents. At times he found it hard to find the motivation to do his schoolwork. 

“Senioritis hit crazy,” Taylor said. "It was days I would wake up and just see eight more assignments, and it was just like, ‘You know what, today is not the day,’ and I’d just go right back to sleep. But then I realized, they got due dates on them, I gotta hurry up and do these.”

Many families decorated cars to congratulate the Class of 2020 at an outdoor, drive-in commencement Sunday May 31, 2020, in Hazelwood.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Many families decorated cars to congratulate the class of 2020 at an outdoor, drive-in commencement Sunday in Hazelwood.

After some students and parents worried they’d get their diplomas in the mail, Ferguson-Florissant was among the school districts that signed up for a drive-in-type commencement to be held at the old mall in Hazelwood. More than 2,700 students — mostly from Ferguson-Florissant and Rockwood districts — walked across the stage at what’s now called the Powerplex as families (mostly) stayed in their cars to watch on jumbotrons and listen on their radio.

Families squeezed into decorated cars — and a few 14-passenger vans — to get into the parking lot. 

“So it’s like at the drive-in back in the day, whoever you can squeeze in the car can get in on a ticket,” said Sherricka Coleman, Taylor’s mother.

Then the tailgating began. Many stood on the roof for a better view and held signs.

A family member watches graduation projected onto a big screen from the roof of his car. May 31, 2020.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A family member watches graduation projected onto a big screen from the roof of his car.

“Everything is not the same; I actually think this is better,” said Monique Coleman, whose daughter graduated. “Everyone’s together, we have signs. As long as everyone’s social distancing, we’re good.” 

The students sat six feet apart in chairs spread across astroturf that covered the asphalt. A barricade separated them from families. They were instructed to only bump elbows and refrain from hugs and high-fives.

Families gathered around a fence separating them from students despite attempts for the graduation to be socially distanced.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Families gathered around a fence separating them from students despite attempts for the graduation to be socially distanced.

For these students, graduation day doubled as a class reunion. Many hadn’t seen their friends in two months and probably won’t see some again after this day. 

“It’s very bittersweet to see them again, but I can’t really hug them or touch them or anything like that, obviously. We’ve done the little arm bump,” said Mikayla Parson, a senior who was a valedictorian.

McCluer North High School's Class of 2020 celebrates after graduation Sunday.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
The Class of 2020 missed out on a lot of milestones, such as prom, but some where able to hold socially distanced graduation ceremonies.

But when someone in a fancy gown says "congratulations graduates," streamers shoot from the sky and caps start flying, the instinct is to hug someone, which many of them did.

“It’s been very memorable to say the least,” said senior Passion Barriere. “I never expected my graduation to go like this, but it’s certainly a graduation no one will forget.”

McCluer North High School's Class of 2020 celebrates after graduation Sunday, May 31, 2020.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
McCluer North High School's class of 2020 celebrates after graduation Sunday.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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